Aztecs prove to be Elite with Sweet victory over Alabama

Mar 24, 2023; Louisville, KY, USA; San Diego State Aztecs guard Matt Bradley (20) dribbles past Alabama Crimson Tide forward Brandon Miller (24) during the first half of the NCAA tournament round of sixteen at KFC YUM! Center. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Fisher, who celebrated his birthday, continues to insist that the 2010-2011 Aztecs that finished ranked seventh in the final AP poll was the best team in that season’s NCAA Tournament. Kawhi Leonard’s subsequent career arc suggests he is correct.

The 2013-2014 squad ended the year ranked No.13 in the AP poll. They went on the road to beat the Kansas Jayhawks, led by Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins.

Both of those historic teams tapped out in the Sweet 16. This year’s Aztecs joined the conversation as the school’s best team last week by winning two games in the NCAA Tournament.

This afternoon, this version of SDSU made its claim on the top spot by knocking off the overall No.1 seed Alabama 71-64.

“First of all, congratulations to Alabama,” SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said in the postgame press conference. “They have a really good team, and we had to play really well tonight to come out with a victory. … (I’m) proud of our guys.”

One of the questions coming into the contest was how SDSU would match up with National Freshman of the Year Brandon Miller. Miller is one of three Crimson Tide players six-feet-nine or taller in the starting lineup. Keshad Johnson was charged with trying to slow down the potential top-five pick in the NBA draft.

Johnson’s matchup was significant for more than just on-ball defense. Throughout the season, Miller set the tone for Alabama on the glass and was instrumental in helping them become one of the best transition teams in America. Both coaches stressed throughout the week the importance of rebounding in regulating the pace of the contest.

“Credit to him, first of all, he’s a lottery pick and a talented player,” Johnson said postgame when asked about the matchup with Miller. “With guys like that, you have to just try to contain them. We know they’re going to make shots. We know they’re going to make things happen, but you have to try your best to make everything as tough as possible. That’s all I did. I just gave 110, maximum effort, and credit to my teammates also. When I switched off of him, they also did a great job on him.”

The Aztecs had an early advantage in the game. Johnson scored four of the Aztec six points, including a lob off a fast break. Lamont Bulter stole the ball from Miller on the defensive end, setting up the breakaway dunk on the other end. SDSU led 6-5 at the first TV timeout.

SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher had four subs off the bench coming out of the break. Micah Parrish drew the defensive assignment on Miller. Miller picked up his second foul battling Aguek Arop for a rebound.

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Both teams struggled to control the defensive glass early on. There was ample opportunity for both teams to fight for offensive rebounding. Both teams started the game cold from the field.

At the second media timeout, the game was tied at 11. Alabama was 4-of-14 from the field. SDSU was 5-of-17. The Aztecs settled for numerous midrange jumpers in the first nine minutes of the game, while the Crimson Tide committed four turnovers.

Miller re-entered the game and quickly ignited a basket for Jahvon Quinerly, who got a cross-court pass and drove to the basket for a layup to give the Crimson Tide a 13-11 lead.

With Matt Bradley on the bench, Darrion Trammell was the most aggressive Aztec on the offensive end. He also had four points, shooting was 2-of-5 from the field. The game was knotted at 13 at the under-eight television timeout.

“I think it’s more of a felling,” Tramell said postgame when asked why he carried the offensive load. “I feel like throughout the whole week prepping for them, I knew what coverage they were in as far as screens, and that’s something I was working on. At this point in the year, you have to have that confidence that you’re going to knock the shot down that you’ve been working on.”

SDSU’s depth vs. Alabama’s stars was the story of the game. Bradley remained on the bench with two fouls while Alabama’s head coach continued to play his star with two fouls. Miller made two baskets of the game around a three from Trammell as the teams traded scores.

The Crimson Tide led 19-16.

Off a good look from Trammell that rimmed out, Quinerly grabbed the bottom of both of Nathan Mensah’s thighs, taking SDSU’s center’s legs out from under him. The refs called a foul and, after a review, gave Quinerly a flagrant foul.

SDSU went on a quick 5-0 run to take a 21-19 lead. Mensah hit one of the two free throws, and Adam Seiko hit a pair of midrange jumpers. Seiko heating up was a welcomed sign for the Aztecs, who struggled to hit long twos throughout the first half.

Parrish’s first foul sent the game into its final commercial break and set up a one-and-one for Mark Sears. Sears hit both foul shots to tie the game. Both of Alabama’s stars were on the bench down the stretch until Quinerly re-entered with 1:12 left.

The Aztecs took advantage of their absence. They closed the half on a 7-2 run to lead 28-23 at the break. Most of the damage was done with Alabama’s dynamic duo watching from the sideline.

Jaedon LeDee scored with post move score in the game. He added one more by hitting the front end of a one-and-one. Trammell picked Sears’ pocket at the top of the key and took it the other way for a layup.

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The story of the first half was defense. SDSU limited Alabama to 8-of-29 from the field and only 1-of-11 from downtown. The Aztecs were not much better. They shot 12-of-37 overall and only two-of-eight from behind the arc.

Trammell led all scorers with nine. He was clearly the most confident Aztec in the opening twenty minutes. SDSU’s guard transferred to SDSU to play in moments like this, and he rose to the occasion. Johnson chipped in six for the Aztecs.

Sears paced Alabama with five. Three of those came from the foul line. Miller had five points on 2-of-9 shooting

Credit: AP Photo.

Though the Aztecs had the advantage at intermission. Their lead could have been more. Dutcher said postgame that their trouble giving the ball away was problematic.

Throughout the season, Alabama had been a great second-half team, while SDSU had allowed large leads to vanish. That trend continued in this game.

The 2022-2023 team showed why it should be considered the best squad in program history. They withstood a furious start by Alabama in the opening ten minutes of the second half. Most teams in the nation would have folded. But not the Aztecs.

The Crimson Tide quickly erased the first-half deficit and jumped out to a four-point lead after outscoring the Aztecs on a 13-4 run before the media timeout. Miller hit a three, Sears got another pair of free throws, and seven-foot center Charles Bediako added four.

The refs gave Dutcher a technical for arguing a call against Bradley on a loose ball. They ruled Bradley undercut Bediako even though he touched the ball first. Alabama scored four points on the trip to extend its largest lead at that point to six.

SDSU responded with a monster and-one dunk by LeDee to briefly limit the bleeding. The Crimson Tide kept the run going, though. Quinerly hit a three. Miller assisted on a pair of trips down the court. Dutcher called a timeout to stop the momentum with 11:33 left. Alabama led 48-39.

With the season hanging in the balance, Trammell came to the rescue.

He hit a three out of the timeout and stepped into a passing lane for an uncontested layup. His quick burst brought the Aztecs within four and raised Trammell’s total to 14 on the game heading into the second television break.

“We talked about it in the huddle,” Trammell said. “I told the guys that it’s March. ‘We’re going to go on our run,’ and I truly believed that. I just took the opportunities they gave me. I feel like the big was too low on the drop. I took my shot and just made a play on defense. And then, from there, our team was in it. That’s when the momentum changed.”

He added another three to trim Alabama’s lead to 48-47 with 9:03 left. Mensah hit the front end of a one-and-one. Seiko drilled an open three to cap a 12-0.

It could have been more, but a 50/50 block or charge call went against the Aztecs. Arop stole the ball from behind, went for a layup, and Quinerly slid underneath him at the perfect moment, drawing a charge.

SDSU led 51-48 with eight minutes left.

Up one, Trammell hit another pair of shots with the shot clock running down the next two possessions to extend the lead to five. Sears made a layup to bring Alabama to one score with 4:38 remaining.

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Off a Trammell miss, Parrish created a jump ball, giving the Aztecs possession. Out of the baseline inbounds, Parrish drilled a three, adding to his long list of clutch shots this season. LeDee added a monster dunk when he ran over an Alabama defender with a spin move.

After Butler stole the ball from Miller again, SDSU held a 60-53 with 3:45 left and possession of the ball at the under-four-minute break.

Out of the timeout, Dutcher drew up a play for LeDee to extend the lead to nine. Quinerly made a layup on the end. Bradley got his first basket of the game to bring it back to nine.

With 2:18 left, up seven, Dutcher called a timeout. In the previous trips of the contest, the game had lost the structure SDSU needed to be successful against its more athletic opponent. Dutcher put the balls in Bradley’s hands as he said he would in these moments all season.

Bradley hit a jumper. With 78 seconds left, two more free throws by Sears brought the lead to seven. With only four seconds going off the clock, Alabama forced a turnover by tying up Mensah on the inbounds pass.

Credit: ESPN

Oats called a timeout to design the most important play of either team’s season. Inbounding under its own basket. Sears got the ball at the foul line. With Miller looking for the ball on the sideline, Arop overplayed Sears, who turned and drove to the basket for an and-one layup.

Down four, the Crimson Tide chose not to foul. Parrish nearly committed a ten-second violation but just made it across the half-court line in time. With 55.5 seconds left, LeDee missed a one-and-one.

Sears made a bucket on an offensive rebound to shave the lead to only two. Bradley calmly hit two free throws.

Miller missed a three. On the rebound, replay showed Sears barely graze the ball as it went out of bounds.

Seiko inbounded to Bradley, who deftly spun and dribbled out of a triple team. He dribbled off precious time. Eventually, Parrish ended up with the ball and was fouled. He hit one.

Mensah blocked Quinerly’s layup attempt. Parrish hit two more free throws to end the scoring.

SDSU won 71-64 to send the overall No.1 seed packing.

Miller and Quinerly were the stars coming into the game. Trammell was the star of the game. He poured in an unforgettable 21 points to pace the Aztecs. LeDee finished with 12. SDSU did a great job guarding Miller and Quinerly. They combined for just 19 points on 7-for-32 shooting.

The Aztecs are the first team in program history and from the Mountain West to reach the Elite Eight. They continue dancing on Sunday against the winner of Princeton and Creighton.

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